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The New York Times

November 13, 2016

Teslas in the Trailer Park: A California City Faces Its Housing Squeeze

By Conor Dougherty

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — If there is anything that just about every Californian agrees with, it is that it costs too much to live in the state. Over the last few years, the price of buying a home or renting an apartment has become so burdensome that it pervades almost every issue, from the state’s elevated poverty rate to the debate about multimillion-dollar tear-downs to the lines of recreational vehicles parked on Silicon Valley side streets.

The town of Mountain View, Google’s home, wants to do something about that. Given new marching orders from a reform-minded City Council that was swept into office here two years ago, Mountain View is looking to increase its housing stock by as much as 50 percent — including as many as 10,000 units in the area around Google’s main campus.

“We need to provide housing because there’s a housing shortage,” said Lenny Siegel, a Mountain View councilman. That may seem an obvious tautology, but it turns out to be highly contentious in a state where most cities and suburbs are still dominated by anti-growth politics that seek to maximize the construction of tax-generating offices while minimizing the number of budget-depleting residents.

Mountain View’s political evolution, combined with some limited cases elsewhere, suggests that as rent and home prices have reached the point where even highly paid tech workers are struggling — the median home here costs $1.4 million, according to Zillow — the tide is slowly shifting away from resisting growth at all costs and instead trying to channel it.

This Silicon Valley city of about 80,000 people is also a reminder that, despite the outsize attention given to big cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, any solution to California’s housing crisis is going to rely heavily on suburbs as well.

This was underscored by the results of last week’s election, when voters across California passed various affordable housing measures along with new transit funding, and, in some cases, rejected efforts to restrict or cap development. In Palo Alto, several pro-housing candidates were elected to the City Council. Residents in Mountain View approved rent control.

“Housing used to be about ‘them’ — like poverty or unemployment,” said Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy. “But it has become so expensive in the Bay Area that housing now touches enough people to win elections.”

For all its imagination about the future, Silicon Valley’s geography looks a lot like the past. Today’s college-educated millennials might be crowding into city centers, but each day employees at companies like Google and Facebook endure hours in cars or on buses commuting to squat office complexes that have all the charm of a Walmart.

Many employees say they would prefer to live closer to work. But these companies reside in small cities that consider themselves suburbs, and the local politics are usually aligned against building dense urban apartments to house them.

Take Palo Alto, the Silicon Valley city that has become emblematic of the state’s reputation for rampant not-in-my-backyard politics. Palo Alto has one of the state’s worst housing shortages. With about three jobs for every housing unit, it has among the most out-of-balance mixes anywhere in Silicon Valley.

But instead of dealing with this issue by building the few thousand or so apartments it would take to make a dent in the problem, the city has mostly looked to restraining a pace of job growth that the mayor described as “unhealthy.”

Farther up the peninsula near San Francisco, the small city of Brisbane told a developer that its proposal for a mixed-use development with offices and 4,000 housing units should have offices for about 15,000 workers, but no new housing.

Play that out a thousand times over and the crux of the state’s housing crisis is clear: Everyone knows housing costs are unsustainable and unfair, and that they pose a threat to the state’s economy. Yet every city seems to be counting on its neighbors to step up and fix it.

The results are strange compromises like the one made by Rebecca and Steven Callister, a couple in their late 20s who live in a double-wide trailer in a Mountain View mobile home park whose residents are retirees and young tech workers.

Mr. Callister is an engineer at LinkedIn, the sort of worker who, in most places, would own a home. But given the cost of housing in Mountain View and the brutal commute times from anywhere they could afford, a trailer makes the most sense and lets him spend more time with the couple’s two young children.

“We joke that it’s the only mobile home park with Mercedeses and Teslas in the driveway,” Mrs. Callister said. “It’s like the new middle class in California.”

In contrast to Palo Alto, Mountain View is trying to wedge new apartments into its office parks. Much of the action centers on the North Bayshore area, a neighborhood of low-slung office buildings surrounded by asphalt parking lots.

Each weekday morning, North Bayshore fills up with cars and young Google employees. They pack the narrow sidewalks and zip around on multicolored bikes. But then the day ends, everyone goes home and there is not much left besides sounds from the nearby freeway and overachievers working late.

Mr. Siegel, the city councilman, wants to turn this prototypical example of sprawl into a bustling urban neighborhood. The city has plans for nearly 10,000 new apartments and hopes that businesses like a grocery store, bars and retail shops will follow them.

Here in Mountain View, as in many places, residents are mostly aligned against putting too many apartments near the city’s core single-family-home neighborhoods. The city is looking to create new neighborhoods by pushing growth to areas like North Bayshore, where there are already a lot of jobs and few neighbors to complain.

Versions of that strategy are taking hold across the Bay Area.

Sunnyvale, where Yahoo is based, is looking to transform an older industrial area near one of its rail stations into a new development that would include offices and housing. Menlo Park is studying how to allow for up to 4,500 housing units to be built on industrial land near Facebook’s headquarters.

Chris Meany, a partner at Wilson Meany, a real estate development firm in San Francisco, recently headed up a project in San Mateo, about a half-hour south of San Francisco. There, a defunct horse-racing track is being redeveloped into a mixed-use project that sits along a train stop and will eventually comprise five office buildings and 1,000 houses, apartments and condos.

Given the political resistance to new housing and the cascade of lawsuits that are a good bet to follow any new proposal, Mr. Meany said he and other developers were more likely to focus on mega-projects with a bigger payoff.

“A planner would go out and say, ‘We should do things regionally and scatter housing throughout the area,’” he said. “But if you’re the developer who has to actually get it done, it is better to go off and find large areas of problematic land than trying to choose the smartest location.”

North Bayshore was historically farmland and the site of the city dump, but in the 1970s, when tech first started booming, Mountain View looked to develop it into a low-density office park.

The area has since become a symbol of Silicon Valley’s booms and busts. Early tenants included faded giants like Silicon Graphics. Then came the 1990s and the dot-com boom and bust.

In 1999, just before the bust hit, a little start-up named Google moved from Palo Alto to North Bayshore when it had only a few dozen employees. Today, Google has about 20,000 workers here, and the crush of daily commuters leads to long backups at the three freeway exits into the area.

Four years ago — as Google was swelling, rents were exploding and eviction stories were becoming commonplace — Mountain View started looking to redevelop North Bayshore. The acrimonious debate over whether to add housing included both predictions that the neighborhood would fill up with the tech equivalent of Chinese factory dorms and worries that residents would disturb a habitat for local burrowing owls.

One city councilman even suggested that if the city built housing in North Bayshore, it could create a Google voting bloc that would turn Mountain View into a factory town. But after the City Council decided against adding new housing, voters responded by electing three pro-housing candidates, including Mr. Siegel. One of the new Council’s first acts was to instruct the city’s planning department to study ways to add housing to North Bayshore. That decision was unanimous.

Since then the Council has approved about 2,000 new units elsewhere in town. In all, Mountain View is studying how to add a total of 17,000 units. Mr. Siegel said developers submitted more proposals for housing than the city could process, so the town was looking to hire more planners.

There are plenty of desks and a budget to pay them, but few want to take the job.

“They can’t afford to live here,” Mr. Siegel said.